Al Natale: Penthouse Tenant
Although trumpeter and bandleader Al Natale never called himself a jazz musician, I would be remiss if I did not remember him in this jazzy blog. Al was a generous man who liked to help people, and he helped me when I was writing The Boston Jazz Chronicles. But Natale, who died on April 28, 2020 at age 96, did play a noteworthy role at one of Boston’s famous bygone clubs, Paul’s Mall. He led that club’s first house band. Al Natale was the original Penthouse Tenant in 1964.
It took him a while to work his way to the penthouse. Natale started with music as a kid, playing bugle, then trumpet, in the band at St Anthony’s School in the North End. His dad was a weekend musician, and he helped Al with reading and ear training. In the mid 1930s, Al advanced to dance bands, then a theater pit band, while in high school. His teacher was Ralph Fuccillo, the lead trumpet in the RKO Boston Theatre orchestra. Al told me, “Ralph got me on the band. I was a good reader, and that’s what you needed to be to work all the different shows. Larry Flint was the conductor, and he’d recommend me as a substitute when visiting bands needed a trumpet player. I worked with Bobby Sherwood, Freddie Slack, Charlie Spivak…That’s how I came to join Bob Chester’s band.”
On the Road with Bob Chester
Chester was in Philadelphia when he called Natale with a job offer. Natale hung up the phone and raced to Philadelphia, joining the band at the Earle Theatre. Thus began his life as a big band road warrior. “I’m all of 17 or 18, a kid from the North End never much farther from home than Scollay Square, and here I am, working at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City opposite Harry James. Fabulous.” Chester’s was a talented band, and Al worked alongside drummer Irv Kluger, saxophonist John LaPorta, and the extraordinary trombonist Bill Harris.
The Chester band toured constantly, supplying the music at war bond rallies and traveling the RKO circuit. They sometimes played five shows a day. Al remembered killing time between shows playing poker backstage with the Three Stooges.
Al Natale was never in a top-tier band, but he was in some good ones, including those of Sherwood, Will Osborne, and Jerry Wald. Natale played New York’s Paramount Theatre, one of the most revered of the big-band venues, with Wald’s orchestra. They relocated to Hollywood, but Al chose not to go, a decision he later regretted.
Natale settled back into the Boston scene and the life of an active musician. He worked society parties for Ruby Newman, played dance dates with the orchestras of Pete Cutler and Don Dudley, fronted a group in the lounge at the Latin Quarter, worked in the show bands at Blinstrub’s and the Frolic on Revere Beach. Natale supplied the music for a big Kennedy for President rally at Boston Garden in 1960. That same year he led a band at the Mayfair, a night spot in Bay Village. Among the young Bostonians he hired were pianist Chick Corea and drummer Joe Cocuzzo. And Al got involved with the Boston Musicians Association, the old Local 9 of the American Federation of Musicians.
At Paul’s Mall with the Penthouse Tenants
All of which brings us to the main event. In 1964, Natale arrived at the brand-new Back Bay club, Paul’s Mall. He organized the first house band and named it the Penthouse Tenants. He picked that name because Paul Vallon, the manager, club namesake, and intermission pianist, used “Penthouse Serenade” as his theme song. In the Mall’s first years, it featured comedians—good ones, like Henny Youngman, Irwin Corey, and George Carlin. Natale opened for all of them, and played his blend of jazz-pop for the house the rest of the time. Natale’s group was still working occasionally at Paul’s Mall as late as 1969.
In 1965, Herb Alpert launched the Tijuana Brass on the West Coast, and they became a chart-busting pop phenomenon. Natale heard Alpert’s recordings, hired another trumpet player and a guitarist, and renamed his band the Tijuana Sounds. They caught a wave of popularity and rode it. They played clubs like Paul’s Mall, but their most lucrative business came from private events. Some, like mayor Kevin White’s inaugural gala in 1968, were high-profile affairs.
The work slowed down in the 1970s for Al, as it did for many middle-of-the-road musicians. I never did ask him when he finally set aside his trumpet. In his later years, though, he shifted to playing oldies. By that I mean oldies for his World War II generation. He’d assemble bands comprised of old friends and union contacts to play stock big band charts, and call it the Al Natale Swing Orchestra. You never knew who you’d see on the bandstand with him. With Al as front man, his Classic Swing Orchestra became a summertime perennial, playing a few neighborhood festivals and park concerts each year.
In the end, age caught up to Al Natale’s Swing Orchestra. They performed for the last time in September 2018. With that, Natale finally “officially” retired at age 94, some 80 years after he got started.
Al Natale always had time to answer a few questions and share a little history. Once we took a field trip. We strolled down Hanover Street in the North End one summer afternoon in 2015, with Al recalling how it was in the ’30s and ’40s. And I swear, every fourth person on that street stopped him to chat. The bugler from St Anthony’s band had many friends. Arrivederci, Al.